Saturday, March 30, 2013

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Monday, March 25, 2013

The Thorn Punch

The Thorn Punch

All the weapons used by the Apaches in Paris are unique, but none are more ingenious than these curious rings and the device known as the “thorn punch”. The latter, held as shown in the illustration and delivered with a hard, straight blow, would drop a man as if hit by a sledge. The rings, however, are more subtle, as they appear to be nothing more than ordinary finger adornments with the exaggerated settings or heads often worn by fad extremists, but hidden within the hand is an extension. This rests against the palm when the fist is doubled and adds much force to the blow.
~ Popular Mechanics, June 1911

(via bornofanatombomb)

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Things To Come

Welcome To Weirdsville: Some of the Biggest Spills And Accidents

 This is exceptionally cool: a brand new piece I wrote for Dark Roasted Blend - on Some of the Biggest Spills And Accidents - just went up. Check out the teaser below - and for the full thing just click here.

And, don't forget, I have an entire book of this stuff available right now: Welcome To Weirdsville!

Some of the Biggest Spills And Accidents

"Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes." -Oscar Wilde

What makes this quick look at ten big-time spills, accidents, and boo-boos especially scary is that they far too often involve stuff that you’d think we'd be taking extra-extra-extra special care with: industrial waste, nuclear weapons, molasses, and - more shocking than anything else - beer.

Even though evolution has graced us homo sapiens with two of them, the briefest glances at the history of extremely large scale accidents is more than enough to make us wonder if we should be sporting nothing but thumbs.

10. The Demon Core

It seems as soon as mankind started splitting them, we've been letting atoms slip through our fingers. Even putting aside the sad irony of Marie Sklodowska-Curie dying by her own discovery of radioactivity, our earliest attempts to harness the power of atomic energy are filled with shuddering tales of glow-in-the-dark slip-ups.

Back in 1945, when the scientists of the Manhattan Project were first banging blocks of uranium together, there was a nightmarishly series of accidents involving what - very aptly - came to be called The Demon Core.

Basically just a little-less-then 15 pound ball of plutonium, in August 21, the core went first went demonic when Harry Daghlian accidentally dropped a brick of tungsten carbide into it. Heroically, Harry managed to pull the brick out - avoiding a supercritical reaction - but died shortly thereafter from radiation poisoning.

A few months later, on May 21st, Louis Slotin tried to – and if this doesn't make you shiver then nothing will - "tickle the dragon's tail' by basically pushing the core as far as they could ... his only safety feature being a carefully inserted screwdriver.

All it took was for that well thought-out safety feature to slip and the core went momentarily supercritical: as with Daghlian, Slotin managed to prevent a chain reaction, but fatally dosed himself - and exposed eight other people nearby with enough radiation to seriously shorten their lifespans.

9. The Kyshtym Disaster

American scientists weren't the only ones fumbling and bumbling with nuclear power. On the other side of the world, the Soviets were racing with mad abandon to catch up with their counterparts ... emphasis on the phrase "mad abandon."

In the closed science city of Ozyorsk, they built the vast plutonium manufacturing plant of Mayak. Unfortunately, they were more-than-a-bit fumbling in the dark when it came to nuclear power, and on September 29th, 1957 a radioactive waste tank exploded. While the blast itself was impressive - it tossed the tank's 160 ton lid completely off - the release of toxic materials contaminated the region, resulting in an estimated 8,000 deaths.

What's particularly surreal about the The Kyshtym Disaster is that it didn't officially exist: the Soviets simply erased not just the accent but the town itself. The name "Kyshtym Disaster" is used because Ozyorsk and Mayak were erased from all subsequent maps and Kyshtym just happened to be the closest landmark.

If that makes you shake your head, keep shaking: there are reports that while the Soviets made Ozyorsk and Mayak "go away" the CIA knew of the disaster but kept the information secret to protect the US's own nuclear power industry.


Sunday, March 17, 2013

Welcome To Weirdsville: ON DESTROYING THE EARTH

Here's a fun piece from my new book, Welcome To Weirdsville on scientific experiments that actually, really, might destroy us all.

Have Fun!


We like scientists. We really do. After all, without them – and the scientific method – we’d still think lightning was Zeus hurling thunderbolts, the sun was an enormous campfire, and the earth itself was balancing on huge turtles. Without science we’d be ignorant troglodytes – too stupid to even know that we’d evolved from even simpler life forms.

Yep, we love science – but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t scare us. After all, when you’re dedicated to cracking the secrets of the universe it’s kind of expected that sometimes, not often, you might crack open something a tiny bit … shall we say … dangerous?

The poster child for the fear that science and engineering can give us – beyond Shelley’s fictitious Frankenstien, of course -- was born on July 16, 1945, in New Mexico. Not one to miss something so obvious, its daddy, the one and only J. Robert Oppenheimer (‘Oppy’ to his pals) thought “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds” from the Bhagavad Gita – but Kenneth Bainbridge, the Test Director, said it even better: "Now we are all sons of bitches."

Sure, the Trinity Atomic Bomb Test -- the event that began the so-called atomic age, leading to our now-constant terror that one day the missiles may start to fly and the bombs begin to fall -- was the first, but since then there have been all kinds of new, if not as flashy, scientific investigations that could be ten times more destructive. In other words, we could be one beaker drop from the destruction of the earth.

Naturally this is an exaggeration, but it’s still fun – in a shudder-inducing kind of way – to think about all these wildly hypothetical doomsdays. Putting aside the already overly publicized fears over the Large Hadron Collider creating a mini black hole that immediately falls to the core of the earth – eventually consuming the entire globe – some researchers have expressed concern that some day we may create, or unleash, a subatomic nightmare. The hunt for the so-called God particle (also called a Higgs boson), for instance, has made some folks nervous: one wrong move, one missing plus or minus sign, and we could do something as esoteric and disastrous as discovering that we exist in a metastable vacuum – a discovery made when one of our particle accelerators creates a cascade that basically would … um, no one is quite sure but it’s safe to say it would be very, very strange and very, very destructive. Confusing? Yep. But that’s the wild, weird world of particle physics. It's sometimes scary. Very, very scary.

A new threat to everyone on the planet is the idea of developing nanotechnology. If you've been napping for the last decade or so, nanotech is basically machines the size of large molecules: machines that can create (pretty much) anything on a atomic level. The question – and the concern – is what might happen if a batch of these microscopic devices gets loose. The common description of this Armageddon is "grey goo." The little machines would dissemble the entire world, and everything and everyone on it, until all that would be left is a spinning ball of, you guessed it, goo.

Another concern for some folks is that, for the first time, we’ve begun to seriously tinker with genetics. We’ve always fooled with animals (just look at a Chihuahua) but now we can REALLY fool with one. It doesn’t take a scientist to imagine – and worry about – what happens when we tinker with something like ebola or, perhaps even worse, create something that affects the reproduction of food staples like corn or wheat. Spreading from one farm to another, carried perhaps on the wind, this rogue genetic tweak could kill billions via starvation.

And then there’s us. What happens if the tweak – carried by a virus or bacteria – screws not with our food but where we’re the most sensitive: reproduction? Unable to procreate we’d be extinct as few as a hundred years.

While it’s become a staple of bad science fiction, some scientists see it as a natural progression: whether we like it or not, one day we will create a form of artificial intelligence that will surpass and replace us. Even putting aside the idea that our creations might be hostile, the fact that they could be better than us at everything means that it would simply be a matter of time before they go out into the universe – and leave us poor throwbacks behind.

There are frightening possibilities but keep this in mind: if something does happen and it looks like it’s going to be the End Of The World As We Know It, there is going to be one, and only one, place to turn to for help: the world of observation, hypothesis, prediction and experiment.

In other words, we’d have to turn to science. They would have gotten us into it, and only they will be able to get us out.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Majorly Mysterious Mima Mounds!

Here's a treat: the article that (that originally appeared on Dark Roasted Blend) about those Majorly Mysterious Mima Mounds - that's now in my book. Welcome To Weirdsville - and thatthe subject of a very cool video by the great folks at Renaissance E Books/PageTurner Editions ... and the brilliant Bill Mills!

Scientists love a mystery. Biologists used to have the human genome, but now they have the structure of protein. Physics used to have cosmic rays, but now they have the God particle. Astronomers used to have black holes, but now they have dark matter.

And then there’s the puzzle, the enigma, the joyous mystery that dots the world over: the riddle of what’s commonly called Mima Mounds.

What’s an extra added bonus about these cryptic ‘whatevertheyares’ is that they aren’t as miniscule as a protein sequence, aren’t as subatomic as the elusive God particle, and certainly not as shadowy as dark matter. Found in such exotic locales as Kenya, Mexico, Canada, Australia, China and in similarly off-the-beaten path locations as California, Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, and especially Washington state, the mounds first appear to be just that: mounds of earth.

The first thing that’s odd about the mounds is the similarity, regardless of location. With few differences, the mounds in Kenya are like the mounds in Mexico which are like the mounds in Canada which are like the … well, you get the point. All the mounds aer heaps of soil from three to six feet tall, often laid out in what appear to be evenly spaced rows. Not quite geometric but almost. What’s especially disturbing is that geologists, anthropologists, professors, and doctors of all kinds – plus a few well-intentioned self-appointed "experts" – can’t figure out what they are, where they came from, or what caused them.

One of the leading theories is that they are man-made, probably by indigenous people. Sounds reasonable, no? Folks in loincloths hauling dirt in woven baskets, meticulously making mound after mound after … but wait a minute. For one thing it would have been a huge amount of work, especially for a culture that was living hand-to-mouth. Then there’s the fact that, as far as can be determined, there’s nothing in the mounds themselves. Sure they aren’t exactly the same as the nearby ground, but they certainly don’t contain grain, pot shards, relics, mummies, arrowheads, or anything that really speaks of civilization. They are just dirt. And if they are man-made, how did the people in Kenya, Mexico, Canada, Australia, China, California, Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, and especially Washington state all coordinate their efforts so closely as to produce virtually identical mounds? That’s either one huge tribe or a lot of little ones who somehow could send smoke signals thousands of miles. Not very likely.

Next on the list of explanations is that somehow the mounds were created either by wind and rain or by geologic ups and downs – that there’s some kind of bizarre earthy effect that has caused them to pop up. Again, it sounds reasonable, right? After all, there are all kinds of weird natural things out there: rogue waves, singing sand, exploding lakes, rains of fish and frogs – so why shouldn’t mother nature create field after field of neat little mounds?

The "natural" theory of nature being responsible for the Majorly Mysterious Mima Mounds starts to crumble upon further investigation. Sure there’s plenty of things we don’t yet understand about how our native world behaves scientists do know enough to be able to say what it can’t do – and it’s looking pretty certain it can’t be as precise, orderly, or meticulous as the mounds.

But still more theories persist. For many who believe in ley lines, that crop circles are some form of manifestation of our collective unconscious, in ghosts being energy impressions left in stone and brick, the mounds are the same, or at least similar: the result of an interaction between forces we as yet do not understand, or never will, and our spaceship earth.

Others, those who prefer their granola slightly less crunchy or wear their tinfoil hats a little less tightly, have suggested what I – in my own ill-educated opinion – consider to be perhaps the best theory to date. Some, naturally, have dismissed this concept out-of-hand, suggesting that the whole idea is too ludicrous even to be the subject of a dinner party, let alone deserving the attention and respect of serious research.

But I think this attitude shows not only lack of respect but a lack of imagination. After all, was it not so long ago that the idea of shifting continents was considered outrageous? And wasn’t it only a few years ago that people simply accepted the fact that the sun revolved around the earth? I simply ask that this theory be considered in all fairness and not dismissed without the same serious consideration these now well-respected theories have received.

After all, giant gophers could very well be responsible for the Majorly Mysterious Mima Mounds

Martins De Barros

Ron Cobb

(via exonauts)

Concept art for Dune ornithopter by Ron Cobb (circa ‘75)

Yang Yankang